Section 4: Waiting room - Chapter eleven

Synopsis of chapter eleven

Offred is taken for her monthly gynaecological check-up. The doctor offers to have sexual relations with her, so that she can conceive a child even if the Commander is infertile. She does not accept, but neither does she completely reject him, in case in revenge he uses his considerable power to have her sent to the Colonies.

Commentary on chapter eleven

This chapter engages with several issues about morality, power and individual choice, especially in relation to the lives of women.

now it's obligatory - Before the time of Gilead, women would have had such check-ups on their own initiative, for their own benefit. Now fertile women are merely objects made to conceive for the good of the state.

his pistol - The incongruous idea of a nurse carrying a gun comes as a shock and reminds us of the Asclepius, photo by Michael F. Mehnert available through Creative Commonsunderlying violence which characterises Gilead.

snakes and swords … bits of broken symbolism - A reference to the asclepian, the symbol of the ancient Greek god of healing, Asclepius. His symbol is a rod or sword entwined with a snake. The fact that Offred sees such symbolism as ‘broken' and belonging to ‘the time before' suggests that doctors in Gilead are no longer dedicated to healing.

a torso only - The doctor does not see Offred as an individual, with her own personal identity and feelings. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

I could help you ... his hand, sliding up my leg - The doctor appears to be genuinely sympathetic to Offred's situation, but his physical actions suggest that he is motivated as much by lust as by pity.

no such thing as a sterile man - Gilead's misogyny extends to supporting the myth that no man can be to blame for a couple's failure to produce children. This reflects the views expressed in much earlier civilisations, such as those depicted in the Old Testament where, for example, in Genesis 30:1-3, Jacob criticises Rachel for her infertility - as Atwood reminds us in the epigraph to The Handmaid's Tale.

Give me children, or else I die - In the epigraph to The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood quotes Rachel's words from Genesis 30:1-3. However, she reminds us here that there are several meanings to the words. Rachel could mean:

  • ‘Or else my life is not worth living'
  • ‘Or else I shall not pass on my life to any descendants'.
  • However, in Gilead ‘die' more literally means ‘or else I shall be executed.'

We are all honey - The doctor calls her ‘honey' as a careless term of endearment. Offred senses that, like all predatory men, he sees women as a pleasurable catch.

He could ... report me - Offred is aware that she is in the doctor's power. She can temporarily put him off but ultimately he could have as much control over her body as if he were to rape her.

It's the choice that terrifies me - Since Gilead took over, Offred is not used to having any control over her own body and life. She now has to start thinking about taking actions which could lead to a variety of outcomes - she is not merely a passive victim. She has the possibility of ‘a way out'. 

Investigating chapter eleven

  • If this chapter were a self-contained short story, what, in your opinion, would be the most significant points to emerge?
  • What other books, films or plays do you know which also discuss moral choices and dilemmas?

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